Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

VI. The battle against oppressive structures

1. The Adverse Conditions Suffered by Pollution Victims

The accumulation of adverse effects suffered by the victims of environmental pollution are so profound that their life-styles are radically altered, as seen in the example of Yanaka Village of Ashio copper-mine fame, in which a whole community was erased from the face of the earth. The place itself gradually came to resemble a ghost town. There are other areas that suffered from the same pollution-induced problems as those seen at Ashio, such as the Doroku area of Miyagi Prefecture, which was affected by arsenous acid poisoning, and the Jintsu River basin, which suffered the effects of cadmium poisoning in the form of Itai-itai disease. Neither the poison-producing industrial organizations nor any of the governmental structures has taken the initiative or responsibility in caring for these victims of a ravaged environment. The governmental organs were interested only in the continuing economic viability of the offending industrial corporations, and the government therefore shares culpability with the corporations. Concern for individuals, for the victims and their families, is something the government seems incapable of.

If the victims waited for the helping hand of governmental organizations to be extended, the problem of oppression would never be solved. History shows us that countless people have suffered at the hands of an uncaring government, only in the end to be eliminated.

When Japan was still under the feudalistic rule of the Tokugawa family, people were forced to work in mines under conditions much worse than those experienced in this century. If individuals lived to the ripe old age of 32 it was something to celebrate. The workers in those times never protested, and they died after a short and wretched existence.

With changing times and the advent of capitalism people worked in iron and steel mills, in textile mills, in mining, and in chemical plants, where the healthy sacrificed their lives, their strength sapped by environmental outrages. The majority of these workers considered that they had no choice in the matter and accepted their fate as part of the workings of destiny. Under these conditions it required a great deal of bravery to appeal to other people, setting oneself against all the industrial, political, and social structures of Japan. In the textile industry tuberculosis was so prominent among workers that whole families would have the disease. Dr. Osamu Ishihara wrote about this when making his academic presentation on the situation of workers in the textile industry. If the victims of these circumstances had protested, the damage would only have increased and the discrimination against them would have escalated. A modern example of this phenomenon in Japan is the discrimination suffered by the victims of the atomic bombings.

In relation to environmental destruction, the protests mounted by the farmers who were victims of the Ashio copper-mine poisonings were silenced through government pressure, as a result of a policy which promoted industry and was bent upon strengthening military power.

It was not until the late 1960s, about 20 years after the end of the Second World War, that at long last the victims of environmental destruction were able to speak with one voice in order that social conditions could be changed. During this period a number of infamous pollution diseases, such as the first and second Minamata diseases, the Morinaga arsenic milk diseases, the PCB poisonings, the thalidomide poisonings, and the SMON disease, were all brought to the public's attention. Also, at this time air pollution conditions were worsening and asthma victims were on the increase. In other words, the time had come to pay for the rapid economic growth of Japan's industrial society, and those who were required to pay these social costs were those without power in society - the consumers and the workers. It was also a time when the so-called post-war democratization processes were beginning to take hold among the people. Along with this there were the movements against the Japan-United States Security Treaty, and a growing alliance of forces against environmental pollution, industrial disasters, and poisonings involving consumer products.

It was also a time when people were beginning to recognize the fact that environmental and related poisonings are a violation of fundamental human rights and that unquestioning acceptance of these unethical and immoral practices was not an unalterable fact of destiny but rather a form of exploitation that needed to be challenged and rectified. Pollution cases were brought to court one after another following the initial suit filed in 1967 by the victims of the Niigata Minamata disease.

The struggle for adequate compensation for victims of mining disasters began to intensify after the Second World War, but it was not until the 1970s that a movement for the protection of mine workers came into being. In 1972 two of the Miike coal-mine explosion victims' families took their cases to court. The damage done to the victims of that disaster was so extensive and devastating that the workers began to go to court to indict the corporate managers.

2. Victim and Mass Movement Interaction

After the pollution victims began taking their cases to court many support groups sprung up. These ad hoc organizations included students, researchers, labourers, consumers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, novelists, and poets.

These court struggles usually involved several lawyers, medical doctors, and academic researchers who were employed by the prosecution to testify against the offending industrial corporations. People began to support the physically handicapped pollution victims. Not only was this kind of support seen on a local level, but support organizations would spring up nationwide. Some people would visit the areas most heavily affected by environmental damage and would live and work with the pollution victims in the hope of creating new communities.

New supporting organizations included groups bent on a boycott of offending companies' products, as in the Morinaga arsenic milk poisoning case. Chisso Company workers came to the aid of Minamata disease victims and the Miike coal-mine workers came to the aid of the mine explosion disaster victims. Instead of victims visiting their doctors, the doctors would go to see the victims in their living environments and learn first-hand the reality of their lives.

The victims and their doctors were supported by journalists, photographers, film producers, writers, and actors; and through the use of the communication media, these people provided an in-depth and broad-based analysis of the situation with respect to the suffering of the victims and the irresponsibility of corporate management. The voices of the pollution victims were heard at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 and at other international conferences and organizations. Through this increase in international pressure from outside Japan, corporate management and governmental organizations had finally to change their stance toward the victims. The pollution cases brought to court in the late 1960s were settled in the early 1970s, and this resulted in certain changes in the law and in the attitude of the government.

Mass movements of citizens supported the pollution victims and through this there were certain changes at the grass-roots level, but the labour unions in Japan - which are, more often than not, company unions - were often unable to arouse interest in the pollution victims among their rank and file. It is essential that labour unions become involved in the struggle for universal human rights if we are to change the social structures that foster the destruction of life and the human environment.

3. The Kochi Pulp Incident

Once a hole has been made in a wall, it is difficult to close up the hole again, even in times of economic depression. In the last ten years the citizens' movements, along with the victims of environmental and occupational diseases, have increased their awareness of human rights. One example of this can be seen in the Kochi Pulp incident, although it is of secondary importance compared to the Ashio, Miike, and Morinaga cases. The reason for its inclusion here is that action by the victims was very effective in changing the situation, and this action was brought to bear at a time when there was rising national involvement in protests against environmental destruction, together with a deepening concern for finding solutions to the radical problems presented by a runaway industrial society.

This situation began when the Kochi prefectural offices invited a pulp-processing industrial concern to set up a manufacturing facility at Urado Bay in Kochi City. From the Tokugawa period (1760) onward Kochi City has been famous for the production of paper from natural resources, and paper manufacture has been a major industry there from time immemorial. As time went on the rivers of Kochi became more and more polluted by paper-manufacturing discharges, and the people, particularly the fishermen, were increasingly threatened by the problem. In the 1930s a pulp-processing plant was constructed, releasing even more effluent into the environment. In 1948 a new pulp complex was proposed for the old pulp plant site. The city administration and prefectural government supported the project while the local fishermen and the citizens were against it. The site was located well within city limits and the plan included no facilities for treating industrial waste. The plan meant that the river running through residential areas to Urado Bay would be thoroughly polluted and there would also be sulphurous anhydride air-pollution problems to contend with as well. This groundswell of opposition continued even after construction of the factory had begun in January 1949. In July of the same year the anti-factory citizens' movement and the company came to an agreement in relation to pollution prevention. This was a time when Japan was moving ahead with full-scale reindustrialization, but the agreement fully represented the will of the people, who opposed the establishment of the pulp factory.

The agreement read in part as follows:

(a) The company will assume responsibility for damage done to the environment by factory operations, and will pay compensation.

(b) In order to ensure that compensations are fully paid a management committee shall be established with more than half of its membership made up of local citizens. The company will retain in the bank at all times a sum of 2,000,000 yen (about $5,500) for industrial pollution compensation purposes and this fund will be managed by the committee.

(c) If pollution-related compensation amounts are paid from the said funds, the amounts withdrawn from the account for such purposes will be replaced immediately by the company. If this supplemental funding is not provided by the company, then the management committee can demand these same funds from the company.

(d) If the amount of money needed for pollution compensation purposes is not covered by the amount of money in the bank and if it cannot be provided by the company, factory operations must be halted. In this instance the factory will remain closed until a problem-solving policy is established.

This agreement was signed by the mayor of Kochi City and the governor of Kochi Prefecture.

As it turned out, the construction of the factory was temporarily halted owing to the economic depression, and the city and the prefecture were not able to meet construction expenses. Responding to an initiative from the Daio Seishi (pulp) Company of Ehime Prefecture, the neighbouring prefecture provided funds for the project and the Nishi Nippon Pulp Factory went into operation in 1951. As a result of this turn of events, the factory went from Kochi Pulp to Daio Pulp management, and in the process the viability and validity of the pollution-prevention agreement was seriously downgraded.

Citizens staging a sit-down demonstration against the construction of the plant were arrested by the police. The high quantities of sulphurous anhydride that the factory emitted into the air damaged human health, and a dark polluted discharge into the river and Urado Bay killed all life in the aquatic environment.

The company did not take any preventive steps in relation to the worsening pollution problem, nor did the governmental organs involved in the plan enforce corrective measures, in spite of the fact that this was stipulated in the original agreement between the company and the citizens of Kochi City. On the contrary, the prefectural office announced that the results of tests on water samples yielded no evidence as to the cause of the degraded aquatic environment or to the type of damage involved. The management committee's 2 million yen fund was used as a slush fund for entertainment. From 1950 onward, the Nishi Nippon Pulp factory and its parent company Daio Pulp grew rapidly in spite of the continued suffering of the local people.

For a period of ten years during which there was no waste treatment provided, the factory continued to discharge its noxious effluents into the river, and with this the Urado Bay fishing industry was greatly compromised. In 1962 the fishermen gave up their fishing rights to the company in exchange for compensation of 100 million yen (about $277,000). After fishing had been halted in the bay, the environment was further compromised by the operations of the company. Because of the fact that the company had changed its management, the citizens' protests were completely ignored.

In the 1960s, after obtaining the bay fishing rights from the fishermen, the prefectural offices reclaimed land around the bay in order to build more factories. With the exception of two or three cases, there were almost no protests by the citizens. In August 1970, when a typhoon hit the city, the people were immediately made aware of the problematic nature of the projects on the reclaimed land, because, as a result of the modifications made to the natural environment around Urado Bay, many more homes in the city and surrounding areas were flooded by the typhoon. The flooding washed accumulated pulp sludge into people's homes, and the damage was considerable. At this point the people realized the serious nature of the problems presented by the pulp factory and the land reclamation projects.

With this turn of events, a second wave of protests against the pulp factory was instituted in 1970, in concert with the many nationwide protests against pollution that were being mounted by labour unions and student movements. An environmental group in Kochi City and a group formed to protect Urado Bay initiated a movement to remove the pulp factory, or at least to ensure that the sludge discharged from it was fully treated before being dumped into the river and bay. The movement grew on the basis of understandings that would come to see all of nature as public property and would also see the interrelationship between human beings and the environment as important and central to the continuance of human civilization. The two groups that came together lay stress on the limits of technology - an argument never before used in the ideology of Japanese anti-pollution protest movements.

However, there remained the fact that for ten years there had been no citizens' protests and that management had changed in 1960 from Kochi Pulp to Nishi Nippon Pulp. On 31 May 1971 the Kochi Pulp management decided not to negotiate with the Urado Bay Protection Citizens' group. Therefore, the four executives of the citizens' movement decided that the situation had reached crisis point and that there was only one course of action - to pour cement into the mouth of the factory effluent outlet. This action took place on 9 June, stopping factory operations for 15 hours. This form of protest was fully supported by the citizens of Kochi City, but the prefectural and city authorities panicked, and, in all the confusion and pressure that followed, were forced to ask the company either to install pollution-control equipment or to move the factory elsewhere. Kochi Pulp management was not able to meet any of these demands, and was therefore forced to close the installation in May 1972. The pollution problems generated by this one plant continued to compromise the natural environment for a period of 20 years after the start of operations. It was stopped in its tracks by the courageous action of a few individuals and by the support for that action by the citizens of Kochi City.

Two of the four persons involved in the plugging of the effluent discharge outlet were prosecuted in court, but the court provided an ideal platform for the protesters, who contended that the Kochi Pulp Company, in its flagrant disregard for the viability of the human environment, was guilty of a criminal action. National anti-pollution groups, environmental protection groups, and the mass media all supported the two people being tried in court, and, as a result of the efforts on their behalf, the court case ended on 31 March 1976 with the two being required to pay a fine of 50,000 yen (about $200) each. In this regard the court battle was a victory for the citizens' movement.

The court struggle became the forum within which it was possible to change the structures promoting environmental destruction through united action by citizens opposed to pollution.


Iijima, N. Pollution in Japan - Historical Chronology. Asahi Evening News, 1979.

-. Kogai rosai yakugai ni okeru higai no kozo [Social Structures of the Victims of Pollution; Occupational Hazards and the Harmful Effects of Medicine]. Kogai kenkyu, vol. 8, no. 3 (1979).

-. Kankyo mondai to higaisha undo [Environmental Problems from the Viewpoint of the Victims' Anti-pollution Movement]. Gakubunsha, 1984.

Contents - Previous - Next